Making a right turn on red could go the way of curbside parking in some parts of the District as city officials intensify efforts to reduce traffic deaths and make the capital a more walkable city.
But does banning right turns on red (RTOR) really save lives? Or is it a feel-good measure that could create additional gridlock and pollution — the opposite goals of a sustainable city — with no appreciable effect on safety?
Last week, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announced a renewed commitment to Vision Zero, an international initiative intended to eliminate traffic deaths. The reset came after a series of deadly crashes, involving 12 pedestrians, three bicyclists and a person riding a scooter, that pushed this year’s total higher than in all of 2017. Bowser and other city officials outlined several steps, including a plan to eliminate right turns on red at about 100 intersections.
Greg Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicycling Association, said he was pleased to see the renewed attention to Vision Zero. The beauty of the initiative is its simplicity in insisting on an uncompromising metric: It doesn’t matter what a city has done, or what other considerations are taken into account, if people are still getting killed in traffic, he said. He urged the city to do more and with greater urgency, such as creating more bike lanes. Regarding right turns on red, he said his group would prefer a citywide ban, as New York City has.
“We just say, when a red light is red, don’t go — don’t go in any direction,” Billing said. “Turning right on red is dangerous for people. It’s dangerous for drivers and for pedestrians especially.”
But John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said he believes eliminating the right turn on red would be counterproductive. Better engineering design would be preferable than getting rid of right turns on red, he said.
“This might sound counterintuitive, but banning turns or creating a no-turn zone in the District is unlikely to increase traffic safety in the nation’s capital. It would likely decrease it,” Townsend said. He said some research suggests that collisions could increase with a ban on all of these turns, because drivers then have to wait for green — and those vehicles would be moving at full speed. “So you are creating an even greater risk for vulnerable users.”
Right turn on red became national policy as a result of the 1973 Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries oil embargo and subsequent energy crisis, when gas prices were soaring and gas lines were spreading.
In 1975, Congress passed the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which pushed states to allow right on red turns as a condition of receiving federal funds. Its aim was to reduce delays, auto emissions and fuel consumption. The law also said the maneuver should be allowed only to the extent that conditions allowed it to be done safely, which generally ruled out intersections near schools or with heavy pedestrian traffic, poor sight lines or other hazardous configurations. By 1980, all 50 states and the District permitted the maneuver. Some went further and allowed left turns on red, too.
Several studies, especially an oft-cited 1982 report co-authored by a researcher for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), reported a hair-raising increase in crashes among the early states that had adopted right-on-red. The study — which looked at early adopters vs. states that had yet to allow the turn — found that crashes increased by 20 percent overall in states allowing right turns on red and by as much as 79 percent in urban areas. Many of those crashes involved pedestrians.
But a 1995 review of national and state data by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that right turns on red had a negligible impact on the risk of traffic deaths. The review noted that earlier studies also occurred when making a right turn on red was a relatively new concept to many drivers. The review also suggested caution in reviewing the findings of earlier studies, including the 1982 IIHS study, because of their statistical limitations, including small sample sizes and incomplete data on the crashes themselves.
Data in the earlier research, for example, counted crashes at intersections where a right turn on red was permitted — but also where, owing to gaps in reporting, it was impossible to know whether the crashes occurred when the light was red or green at the time. That is, some of the crashes might have occurred after a vehicle had stopped at the red light and then turned right, and some accidents might have occurred when the vehicles were turning right on green.
What the 1995 NHTSA review found was during a four-year period, an average of 84 crashes occurred every year in the United States at intersections where a right turn on red is permitted — or 0.2 percent of all 485,104 crashes in the same period. Because the national data could not say whether a right turn on red had been made, it was possible the number of fatal crashes at those intersections was even lower, the paper says.
When looking at data from four states — which included information on whether the vehicle was going right on red when the crash occurred — the NHTSA review found even a smaller rate of crashes involving deaths or serious injury in connection with the maneuver: 0.06 percent. In Maryland, for example, there were 102 crashes involving a right turn on red that caused injuries — and zero deaths — out of 48,972 crashes from 1989 to 1992.
Traffic engineers in San Francisco studied the problem, too, on an even more granular scale. In research prepared in 2002 for the city’s governing body, the writers found that only 0.45 percent of crashes involved someone making a right turn on red. The report also noted that these findings were in line with a 1956 study of San Francisco intersections, which found 0.3 percent of collisions occurred when someone was making a right on red. Both the 2002 and the 1956 study concluded that, if anything, making a right turn on red was no more dangerous than making a right turn on green.
And while there’s little research quantifying how energy-efficient right turns on red are, it’s clear the maneuver offers some savings on fuel and emissions, according to the Energy Department and others. Discovery Channel’s MythBusters and the Boston Globe have reported on how companies such as United Parcel Service save money by taking routes that maximize right turns. Although UPS’s experience isn’t, strictly speaking, about making right turns on red, it suggests that the maneuver is more fuel-efficient than idling at a traffic light.
All of which suggests that the District’s renewed push for safety is wise and overdue, including its reassessment of the safety of making right turns on red. But the research also suggests that the best path is the one the city is on now, which is taking the middle of the road.
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